Dare clergy say anything about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in church? There are consequences to speaking….and consequences of NOT speaking. This past Sunday some clergy in the UCC spoke about the issue – many did not. In some places where the case was mentioned, there was pushback (from both “sides”) and that pushback precipitated a conversation on the listserv of the conference ministers. In response to some of what was posted there, I wrote the note below. I thought you should see it:
The polarization of our society over issues like this is deeply embedded… As we all know, the day of a mostly “common” source of news/information/commentary is long gone (there’s no modern day equivalent to Walter Cronkite), and people are less and less likely to be exposed to an interpretation of current events that challenges their pre-existing presumptions. That’s true of liberals as well as conservatives. And certainly it’s true of the folk in our pews. In many congregations there are as many (or more!) watchers of Fox News as there are watchers of MSNBC.
Predicating race as a factor in events like the Zimmerman case only makes sense to those already conditioned to accept subtlety as a reality in racism. But for millions of Americans the only “real” racism is that which occurs when a person is overtly denied a job or service because of his/her race. For many of these people the idea that it is racist to attitudinally mistrust another because he/she looks different than me is a foreign concept – in fact it’s a concept that may never have even been considered. Isn’t this the very reason that many settings of our church do anti-racism training?
I’m not smart enough to know the strategy by which to eradicate racism in the whole of our society, but I’m pretty sure that dialogue about racism in our churches won’t be successfully accomplished by a display of data (note to my Iowa readers: in some measure I wrote this piece in response to a request for more data about the pervasiveness of such buy propecia dubai racism). Just as attitudes about sexual orientation/identity haven’t changed mostly in response to scientific, or theological or psychological arguments, but mostly in response to relationship: “Oh my gosh! Fred (or Sally…or my child) is gay!” As more and more people realize they already know (and like/respect) someone who turns out to be gay, attitudes have changed – but not so much in response to argument. Similarly, I doubt deeply embedded and largely unrecognized attitudes about race will be swayed an iota by data (or by statements from the likes of me). Instead these kinds of attitudes can only be examined as folk allow themselves to enter into conversation and dialogue and relationship with those who may see things differently.
It takes courage to examine one’s attitudinal instincts – and in times of fear, courage isn’t usually the most common commodity.
For these very reasons I think church is one of the places where these kinds of issues have the best chance of constructive examination – but only in a context of trust and openness and vulnerability – and the leader (usually the pastor) will have to be the one to evidence/model that openness and vulnerability. If the pastor is perceived as telling his people “Why don’t you dumb, racist people start adopting Christ-like attitudes…” well…the game is over before it even starts. I understand no one uses those words…but sometimes we come awful close. If the pastor is going to use the sermon as the forum for an issue like this – she had better already have a profoundly trusting relationship with almost everybody there, or else she had better couch her language in ways that don’t demean those who disagree AND she must explicitly create an accessible and safe forum for feedback and disagreement.
Most of the hard work isn’t going to be done during the sermon (it’s just inherently too one-sided), instead the sermon should probably be the invitation to talk.
At least that’s how I see it and how I’m talking with pastors about this.
—Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference Minister